As our productivity begins to wane around 6pm on most evenings at the SocialRank office, we turn to FIFA 15 for a break. If addictiveness is an indicator of a great product, the world’s most popular sports video game might also be its most well-designed. While mashing buttons on our XBOX controllers and waxing poetic on the new season of South Park, we become the unsuspecting targets of some of the most shrewd marketing ever: the game’s soundtrack.
At almost every possible stopping point in the game (pressing pause, navigating to the main menu, waiting for the game to load), a new track from some unknown British band begins to play. While mostly unrecognizable at first, these songs gain familiarity the more we play the game. Months later, these same songs begin magically appearing on our favorite indie radio stations and music blogs.
We suspected that there was something of a “FIFA Bump” going on. The artists appearing on the game’s famously awesome soundtrack were going on to make it big. In an interview with Pitchfork, EA’s music exec Steve Schnur seems to agree with this theory:
“ […] FIFA has introduced the Black Keys, K’naan, Chromeo, Datarock, MGMT, Lykke Li, Bloc Party, The Ting Tings, Franz Ferdinand, Foster The People, Ladytron, Robyn, Shiny Toy Guns, Damian Marley, Airborne Toxic Event, Matt & Kim, the Temper Trap, Two Door Cinema Club, Grouplove, Imagine Dragons, Crystal Fighters, Kimbra and plenty more […] Their labels, publishers and the artists themselves believe that their appearance in our soundtrack was key.”
The FIFA Bump
In late 2011, a young Los Angeles-based pop band with only one album to their name blew up out of seemingly nowhere. By October of that year, Foster the People had played a set on Saturday Night Live, signed a record deal, and got some love from Sirius XM. They also had a song prominently featured on FIFA 12, which was released on September 27, 2011.
We wanted to see what shape this rise in popularity took, so we looked at Youtube search trends for “Foster the People” between 2008 and 2014. It turns out that the band’s popularity peaked in the immediate aftermath of FIFA 12’s release, and then waned at the start of the new year:
Correlating one band’s popularity with the release of a FIFA game, though, is not very convincing evidence.
So we looked at the aggregated popularity levels of every artist featured in the FIFA 12 game (as determined by Youtube search trends). The peak in this graph fell on the exact week following the release of FIFA 12:
The FIFA 12 soundtrack featured other up-and-coming artists such as Grouplove, Kasabian, and Spank Rock. These artists also saw a bump in their popularity during this time. We observed a similar pattern when viewing the same data for artists from all subsequent versions of the FIFA video game: on average, an artist’s popularity hit its high point during the week of FIFA’s release date.
Explaining the Virality of FIFA’s Soundtrack
What should we make of the phenomenon of the “FIFA Bump?” As Schnur suggests, maybe the video game’s wide appeal and distribution do much of the legwork; artists appearing on the soundtrack simply get brought along for the ride.
Intuitively, this makes sense. Under normal circumstances, a song has a 35% likelihood of being skipped within its first 30 seconds of play (according to a Music Machinery analysis of Spotify data). However, in FIFA, the same twenty-some tracks play in the background repeatedly, and so they receive more opportunities to grow on listeners. If someone really doesn’t like a particular song, he has to go into the game’s settings and manually disable it.
The Zimmerman Effect
But there’s another explanation that involves a legend in the world of viral content.
Neetzan Zimmerman gained acclaim during his time at Gawker for developing a comprehensive system to track the flow of content as it moved up from small blog to slightly bigger blog and teetered on the cusp of going viral. The idea was to take content that had already demonstrated strong appeal to a smaller audience, and then to give that content the right “push” (packaging and distribution) for it to go viral. Zimmerman easily and consistently topped Gawker’s leaderboard for getting the most page views on his posts.
Through this perspective, Foster the People’s success looks a bit different. The band didn’t explode because of appearing on FIFA’s soundtrack. Rather, the band’s popularity was a runaway train gaining steam. Foster the People had already seen one of its songs go viral in the music blog world, was featured in Nylon magazine’s online advertising campaign, and played a set at Coachella.
Schnur and his staff certainly knew this: his team brings with it decades of experience in music marketing and album launches. They very shrewdly picked up on Foster the People (as well as other up-and-comers), capitalizing on and extending momentum that already existed. We could also call this the BuzzFeed/HuffPo Effect, but using someone’s last name sounds more legitimate.
(Of course, there remains the possibility that the FIFA game franchise itself rides the annual boom-bust cycle of album releases and artist launches.)
Building for Simplicity & Depth
At first glance, we might think that Schnur and the music team only filter artists by viral factor. But the type of music that makes it onto the game is actually quite predictable and appears to optimize for a pretty specific profile. Over 65% of the artists on FIFA soundtracks from the past 4 years are UK/USA-based, and over 70% are labeled by Wikipedia as “pop,” “synthpop,” or “indie rock.” The rest is an eclectic mix of everything ranging from Brazilian funk to German hip-hop.
The FIFA soundtrack is just a microcosm for everything the FIFA video game franchise has been doing right over the past several years. Product development steers away from lowest-common-denominator gimmicks and instead caters to the game’s biggest fans. In an interview with Polygon, producer Santiago Jaramillo put it this way:
“I think the main thing that keeps us ahead of the curve is focusing on the right thing. So, staying away from gimmicky features that sound marketable, are costly and at the end of the day, our end fans — it’s not what they want […] What people want more than anything is a solid, good fabric of gameplay experience that focuses on the fundamentals. […] It’s a simple, simple game, but when you add depth to that simplicity, that’s when you create the gameplay experience that FIFA has been able to do.”
And one of the many ways the game’s developers have added depth is to relentlessly pursue a product-market fit for every touch point within the game, from gameplay to presentation to music. What you get as a result is a deep product with growth and marketing built-in: a vocal fanbase, a catchy soundtrack that isn’t just Nicki Minaj remixes, and simple design with subcutaneous complexity. This is what really allows the “FIFA Bump” to work as well as it does. The product “markets itself.”
Case in point — a goals compilation video (pulling from user-submitted content) gets shared on Facebook 2,150 times and liked 22,000+ times in less than 2 hours:
With the FIFA video game, everything is set up to make it impossibly easy for fans to do all the marketing. Like spending 10+ hours writing a blog post about it.